Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker’s appearance before the House Judiciary Committee Friday started off with theatrics, following days of will-he-or-won’t-he speculation over whether he’d even appear.
The hearing quickly turned contentious before Whitaker even had a chance to speak.
Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., opened the hearing by criticizing Whitaker for going against the advice of Justice Department ethics officials and not recusing himself from supervising special counsel Robert Muller’s investigation.
“Your failure to respond fully to our questions here today in no way limits the ability of this committee to get the answers in the long run — even if you are a private citizen when we finally learn the truth,” Nadler said.
A brief overview of Chairman Nadler's opening questions to Matthew Whitaker
He also took aim at Whitaker’s resistance to appearing before the panel.
“We have laid all of the groundwork for this hearing out in the open. We have given you months to prepare. We have publicly documented every request we have made to you,”Nadler said. “We have provided our Republican colleagues with a meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the process. We have nothing to hide from you. We hope you have nothing to hide from us.”
Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the top Republican on the committee, attacked the proceedings, calling it “nothing more than a character assassination” and “political theater.”
He also noted that Whitaker would probably be out of the job soon. William Barr, Trump’s nominee to be his permanent Attorney General, is on track to be confirmed by the full Senate next week.
He said that Democrats on the panel were more interested in putting on a show aiming to damage the president.
“That’s offensive!” he shouted.
Collins attempted to derail the hearing completely with a motion to adjourn, before Whitaker had even been sworn in. The motion fell with a voice vote and Collins requested a roll call vote of all committee members.
The hearing was at a standstill for a few moments as a clerk was summoned to record the vote. Collins effort fell with a 24-10 vote.
Whitaker’s opening statement maintained that he would not discuss private conversations he has had with Trump.
“I will continue the longstanding Executive Branch policy and practice of not disclosing information that may be subject to executive privilege,” his statement said.
Whitaker took a chance to shoot back at Nadler, when the chairman’s questioning about his involvement with the Muller investigation slipped beyond the time limit for each lawmaker.
“Mr. Chairman, I see that your five minutes is up,” he said.
The room then broke into laughter as Nadler looked up with a shocked face that melted into a grin. He noted that he did not enforce the five-minute rule during Whitaker’s opening statement, then asked him to “answer the question, please.”
The tension in the hearing room was high, even before the hearing got underway. The committee staff informed press photographers that a rarely-enforced rule would be in effect.
“Photographers may not position themselves between the witness table and the members of the committee at any time during the course of a hearing or meeting,” reads the rule cited by staff.
That makes the well of the hearing room — a prime location for shots of the witness testifying — off limits.
The rule ended up being enforced only partway through the hearing.
Photographers were permitted to work in the well of the hearing room only during opening statements until Whitaker was sworn in.